After a perfect 31-0 season, the unexpected success of the men's basketball team at Wichita State University in Kansas could translate into big money and recognition for the Midwestern school of 14,550 students.
"They realistically have a shot to do something. We haven't seen this since the mid-'70s with Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers," said Patrick Rishe, director of market research firm Sportsimpacts.
The Shockers' rise to stardom began in last year's NCAA tournament as the Missouri Valley team went from unknown underdogs to the Final Four, where they ultimately ended up being defeated by Louisville. That was the Shockers' last loss.
Wichita State is the first school to be undefeated going into the postseason since St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In 2003-2004, the Hawks finished a perfect 27-0.
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During that time, St. Joseph's saw its student applicant pool grow by about 20 percent, something it's been able to maintain even through the recession. Alumni giving rose about 5 percent.
The positive influence—financial and otherwise—that an amateur college sports team can have for its school has come into focus in recent months, with a lawsuit from former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA winding its way through the courts and student-athletes at Northwestern University petitioning to form a union.
"We are getting recruits in other sports that were on our radar who are now even more engaged for campus visits, so they can see what we're all about."
So, what has a perfect season meant so far for Wichita State?
"The biggest thing we're seeing right now is the sheer amount of conversation in the community," said WSU President John Bardo. "It has raised spirits and you certainly see it all over town."
After last year's trip to the Final Four, WSU saw a record number of donations through the alumni association, raising more than $4.2 million, a record for the school.
Bardo says the school's applicant pool has increased in both number and location. They are seeing new applicants from farther away as their name recognition has grown.
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With more people paying attention to WSU, Bardo hopes to capitalize on the goodwill to develop a research park for the school.
"This is raising the standard and there will continue to be buzz," he said. "I plan to use that as long as I can to develop the institution as a place in the city."
The positive impact isn't just being felt in basketball. Athletic Director Eric Sexton told CNBC that his whole department is benefiting, seeing a 300 percent increase in apparel purchases over the year, with more people wanting to show off their Shocker Nation pride.
"We are getting recruits in other sports that were on our radar who are now even more engaged for campus visits, so they can see what we're all about," said Sexton.
Although the quantity of Shocker tickets in the resale market isn't as large as bigger schools, ticket sales site TiqIQ said the average ticket price for home games after Feb. 1 increased 54 percent compared with the school's season average.
Another small market team, Butler University, located in Indianapolis, has some experience being an underdog. In 2010, the Bulldogs won legions of energized fans and publicity from their March Madness run all the way to the championship game. The team fell to Duke in the final.
During that time, alumni donations to the school grew by 10.8 percent to $9.3 million.
Even more significantly, the tournament exposure helped increase the number of student applicants to Butler—they rose 41 percent over the previous year. That larger applicant pool in turn meant more competition, raising the caliber of student Butler was able to accept. Three years later, Butler will break 10,000 applicants for the first time in school history.
For George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., its 2006 Final Four run gave the school exposure to more than 5,000 radio and TV outlets, not to mention the cover of Sports Illustrated. Out-of-state applications grew the following year by 54 percent.
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Gonzaga University estimated the value of its 1999 Elite Eight run at $37.8 million, while also witnessing increases in Web hits, enrollments and donations.
The trend is clear: It pays off for a small school's team to make it big.
While Wichita state awaits the benefits of its perfect season to kick in, Bardo said the best part of this exciting run has been the overall exposure for the school.
"You don't have to explain to people who you are," he said. "They've heard of you."
—By CNBC's Jessica Golden; follow her on Twitter